Schenectady County

Schenectady likely to see more ‘failing schools’

Three years ago, many Schenectady students were scoring in the bottom 10 percent of the state.
Mont Pleasant Middle School in Schenectady is among the schools that may end up on the state's "failing list."
Mont Pleasant Middle School in Schenectady is among the schools that may end up on the state's "failing list."

Three years ago, many Schenectady students were scoring in the bottom 10 percent of the state.

Now, they’re scoring in the bottom 5 percent, a decline that will likely push three or four more of Schenectady’s schools onto the state’s “failing schools” list.

Only two schools in Schenectady were doing so poorly that they made it onto the state list in 2012, which had 225 schools, including four other Capital Region schools. Now, three or four more of Schenectady’s schools have reached that low: Pleasant Valley, Keane and Yates elementary schools, and possibly Mont Pleasant Middle School.

Their students’ scores on the math and English Language Arts standardized tests have lagged behind the scores of almost every other student in the state in the past three years, according to data published by the state Education Department.

Superintendent Laurence Spring took over in 2012, just after the failing schools list was announced. (The list was dubbed “priority schools” at the time. Gov. Andrew Cuomo renamed it the “failing schools” list last year.)

Spring has embarked on a long-term strategy of improving student performance by trying to get more funding from the state, which gives Schenectady about half the funding it needs, according to the state’s own formula.

But in the meantime, Schenectady’s students need help. And Spring said without more money, he isn’t sure the district can make substantive improvements.

“We can do some shifting,” he said, describing efforts to cut costs on one venture so that he can invest in a different effort. In 2013, he cut many aides and replaced them with reading specialists and psychologists in the hopes that it would give him a better “bang for the buck.”

The district is also using volunteers as tutors, said school board President Cathy Lewis.

“I think we’re doing what we can do,” she said. “I’m not sure what else is in the tool bag.”

But if there’s nothing else in the tool bag, a lot of students may left behind.

At Pleasant Valley Elementary School, 223 students scored below grade level on last year’s state standardized tests. Only 22 students in the entire school scored at or above grade level.

Hundreds more throughout the district are also unable to read or do math at grade level, according to state test results.

Spring said the district’s biggest problem is that many students move in and out of the district, not staying long enough for teachers to make a significant impact on them.

He can’t find a poor, urban school district that has solved that problem. He said he has also scoured educational research and hasn’t found solutions yet to that problem.

State officials have said that New York City responds to that problem by simply keeping the student in the same school no matter where the family lives, but that’s not feasible in Schenectady. Spring said his district’s students usually move far away.

“I can’t keep them if they move to Yonkers,” he said.

As for why Schenectady students are doing worse now than they were three years ago, in comparison with the rest of the state, he said poverty could explain the change.

As of last year, 79 percent of the Schenectady students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to state Education Department data.

The year the failing schools list came out, 74 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the state data.

That’s not a huge change, but Spring said poverty in Schenectady has became “more intense.” It’s hard to quantify that — but in 2012, 65 percent of students were so poor that they could get a free lunch. In 2014, 72 percent qualified for a free lunch. The other 7 percent were poor enough to get a reduced-price lunch.

That suggests that not only did more families become poor, but also more families became so poor that their students moved from reduced-price to free lunches.

While Spring grapples with poverty and high student turnover, the state Education Department is about to issue a new failing schools list.

That list, which will be published in February, will likely have five or six Schenectady schools on it. That would include the two Schenectady schools already on the list: Hamilton and Lincoln elementaries.

Currently, the only districts with more than three schools on the list are New York City, Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. Locally, the list includes one school in Amsterdam — where scores have improved significantly — and three schools in Albany.

Once schools were placed on the list three years ago, those that improved were removed, but no new schools have been added since that time, state officials said.

“We wanted districts to focus their efforts on a subset of schools,” said Ira Schwartz, assistant Education Department commissioner.

The strategy worked to some extent. There are 184 schools left on the list — down from about 225 schools in 2012.

For the new list, the Education Department said the cutoff for the worst 5 percent will likely be at about 50 points — a combined score that counts the number of students who score at grade level on the math or English Language Arts test. A zero means that every student was at level 1, which is well below grade level in both subjects. A 200 means every student was at or above grade level.

The exact cutoff number for next year’s list will be calculated after this year’s test results are released.

While Hamilton and Lincoln elementary schools are scoring well below 50, so are Yates, Keane and Pleasant Valley.

Mont Pleasant Middle School is on the cusp, with an exact 50 after the 2014 tests.

‘lack of political will’

Spring and the city’s school board said the test results do not mean he was wrong to pursue a long-term strategy for changing school funding.

“They designed a system to systematically starve schools and now it’s working,” Spring said of the state’s funding system. “The fundamental concern here is the systemic abandonment of urban school districts by New York state.”

Funding has been a matter of great debate in the state Legislature.

“I’m going to have to agree with the superintendent on this one,” said Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie. “Education aid in the state is maldistributed.”

He said a “lack of political will” was stopping the state from following a court-approved formula that would distribute aid based on need.

But Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said the lengthy debates of education spending indicate that the state hasn’t abandoned urban school districts.

“One of the most challenging problems we have in education is these urban schools,” he said.

He added that Spring can’t just blame the test results on a lack of money.

“I don’t think it’s all just money, but money is always helpful,” he said. “Of course, the problem goes a lot deeper than money. It’s a very complicated situation. It goes back to the home and the family.”

Steck added that Spring can’t ascribe the problem to “the state” as a whole.

“You can’t treat the state as a monolith,” he said. “The Assembly is on the side of the superintendent. The Senate’s power base is on Long Island [so it often supports more funding there]. And the governor’s been focusing on private schools. It can make it very difficult to get everyone on the same page.”

Spring wants to change that system. But it has been a two-year fight thus far, with no end in sight. He acknowledged that he must do something to help the students who are struggling now.

“Internally, we can’t wring our hands and say we don’t have enough,” he said. “We have to make do. There are always things we can do better.”

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